When communicating with fellow Catholics, I have become increasingly aware of the general lack of knowledge, interest and fidelity given to the Church’s stance on moral, spiritual and disciplinary teachings. Indeed, it is all too common to find confusion about Church teachings even among the ranks of regular mass-attending “cradle Catholics.” Many reasons can be given for this widespread confusion and dissension. It maybe that catechesis and religious education is poor in many areas, or it could be that religious interest is at low ebb, or that people falsely believe the second Vatican Council changed the Church’s teachings. Most likely, the reason behind growing dissension in the Church is that many Catholics believe the teaching authority of the Catholic Church is irrelevant in today’s modern world. Regardless of the reason, Catholics who fail to understand the Church’s teaching through ignorance need to be informed. For this reason I have written this article to set the record straight. So that no one may accuse this author of voicing his own personal opinions and politics, I have provided references to the Catechism of the Catholic Church (abbreviated “CCC” in this document) and various church documents promulgated by Rome.
Before I address the Church’s teachings on matters of faith and morals, I’d like to explain the role of dogma in the Catholic faith. For anyone who professes to be Catholic, their faith requires them to believe certain teachings with “divine and Catholic faith.” No amount of personal opinion, “conscientious objection”, or personal desires can excuses them from acting contrary to a defined dogma of the Catholic Church. Certain dogmas such as Christ’s resurrection, the Trinity of God, redemption of sin, belief in heaven and hell and other such dogmas are regarded as pillars of the faith. These teaching cannot be abandoned without simultaneously abandoning the Catholic faith. The church exists to teach men the truth and aid them in attaining salvation through the graces given by Christ’s death and resurrection. Dogmatic teachings are absolutely needed by the faithful so that they can attain salvation. The need for dogmatic teachings is necessary because without them the faithful do not know what is required to gain everlasting life. That is why the Church has the right and the duty to define what we are required to believe in matters of faith and morals. In fact, faith is defined as “the theological virtue by which we believe in God and believe in all that he has said and revealed to us, and that Holy Church Proposes for our belief, because he is truth itself” (CCC 1814). When faith is united with the gifts of hope and charity wrought by the redemption of Christ, faith enlivens our soul and gives us spiritual life. Make no mistake, Catholics “do not believe in formulas, but in those realities they express, which faith allows us to touch” (CCC 170). “Salvation comes from God alone; but because we receive the life of faith through the Church, she is our mother” (CCC 168). As our mother we ought to respect and obey the Church.
There is one more fundamental point on Church teachings that confuse many Catholics. Many Catholics believe that some tradition such as the celibacy of the priesthood, use of liturgical vestments, Lenten requirements, and other disciplines are dogmas of the Church that cannot be changed. Such things are not dogmas but disciplines that can be changed by the Church to suite the needs of the faithful. Changing these things will not compromise the Faith because they are not of the faith by necessity. If the Catholic Church wanted, she could allow a priest to marry (which does occur in the Eastern rite of the Church) or wear common clothes while saying mass or even eliminate the season of Lent. The fact that the Church rarely alters her disciplinary traditions shows us that these traditions are beneficial and have proven to be proper and pious by the test of time. So how do we distinguish dogmas from disciplinary teachings? Dogmas and definitions of faith and morals are explicitly promulgated by a Church Ecumenical Council convened or endorsed by the Pope (such as the Council of Trent, First Vatican Council, and Vatican Council II) or by the Pope in an encyclical letter. Yet, not all statements given by a council or a pope are considered dogmatic decrees. Only those statements which fulfill the following three conditions:
1) The decree is intended for belief by all the Church’s faithful
2) The decree is related to the matters of faith and morals
3) The decree comes from the Pope when exercising his teaching authority as head of the Church or by a general Church council endorsed by the Pope
Dogmas are not new teachings added to the beliefs of the Church; rather they are refinements and clarifications of Church Traditions taught by Christ and the twelve apostles. Dogmas, traditional teachings, and the Sacred Scripture form the Deposit of Faith and constitute the faith of the Church. Explicit doctrines from the Deposit of Faith can be found in the Catechism of the Catholic Church.
With a proper understanding of the role of Church teachings and practices, we can now properly address the Church’s stance on various matters of faith and morals.